By Hudson Hollister
According to leaked documents first reported this evening by Federal News Radio, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced to federal agencies on Friday afternoon that it would ask the bipartisan Senate sponsors of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) to make sweeping changes to a recent version of the Senate’s bill.
In the nearly three years since the DATA Act was first introduced in Congress, the Obama Administration never took an official position, despite requests from the private sector and the bill’s sponsors.
The DATA Act is a top priority for our Coalition, for the global open data movement, and for government transparency advocates on both the political right and left. The House of Representatives passed the bill twice (unanimously in 2012 and by an overwhelming vote of 388 to 1 in November 2013). The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) unanimously approved the DATA Act in November 2013; the bill’s bipartisan Senate sponsors intend to seek approval by the full Senate soon.
Unfortunately, OMB’s proposed revisions hollow out the DATA Act’s central purpose: to transform federal spending from disconnected documents into open data–standardized, structured, and available to citizens and policymakers. If these revisions are ultimately made to the bill, our Coalition will withdraw its support and will call on other advocates of open government data to do the same.
These revisions reveal an effort by the White House OMB to undermine both the DATA Act and the President’s own Open Data Policy. They also run contrary to the broad bipartisan consensus that has emerged across the political spectrum and in the House of Representatives for a comprehensive DATA Act that delivers real reform.
Here are the changes that the White House OMB is requesting–and how they hurt prospects for data transparency in federal spending:
OMB’s Revisions Eliminate Data Standardization. Data standards are at the core of the DATA Act. The DATA Act’s authors and supporters believe that federal spending should be published as standardized data, with common data elements and common formats linking reporting regimes that today cannot be related to one another. These regimes include financial accounting (reported to the Treasury Department), payment requests (reported to Treasury), budget actions (reported to OMB), grants (reported to the Commerce Department), contracts (reported to the General Services Administration), and subawards (theoretically reported to OMB, but often not reported at all).
That is why the current Senate DATA Act, as approved last November by the Senate HSGAC, requires the Treasury Department to establish government-wide data standards for spending. It also mandates that agencies and the USASpending.gov portal use those standards (see Senate HSGAC‘s new section 4, “Data Standards”).
OMB’s draft retains a section with the term “data standards” in the heading–but changes nearly every word and eliminates both mandates.
First, in OMB’s draft there is no requirement for anyone to establish government-wide data standards for federal spending information. That language is replaced by a vague directive for OMB to “review and if necessary revise standards to ensure accuracy and consistency through methods such as establishing linkages between data in agency financial systems and information” (see OMB’s new section 4, “Data Standards and Implementation Requirements”). The new provision shifts the focus from data standards to “standards to ensure accuracy and consistency,” a term with no defined meaning. Thanks to the qualifier “if necessary,” the new provision doesn’t actually require anyone to do anything.
Elsewhere, OMB’s draft does direct OMB to “prescribe” “open data structures (e.g. using a widely accepted, non-proprietary, searchable, platform-independent formats) [sic]” (see OMB’s new section 3). This provision doesn’t compel any real government-wide standard-setting either. It’s vague enough that OMB could fulfill the requirement by issuing a press release.
Second, OMB’s draft drops all requirements for specific data standards. The current DATA Act requires the establishment of “common data elements for financial and payment information required to be reported by Federal agencies and entities receiving Federal funds” (see Senate HSGAC’s new section 4, “Data Standards”). Following a two-year-old recommendation by President Obama’s Government Accountability and Transparency Board (GATB), the current DATA Act mandates “Government-wide universal identifiers for Federal awards and entities receiving Federal awards” (section 4).
These specific provisions are gone from OMB’s draft–replaced by a requirement for OMB to “clarify and standardize definitions on grants and contracts used by agencies and entities that receive Federal funds” (new section 4). “Definitions” are not the same thing as common data elements; “definitions” need not be data standards at all. After OMB’s revisions, the DATA Act no longer compels the government to adopt common identifiers for grants, contracts, grantees, and contractors, which means the infrastructure recommended by President Obama’s GATB will not be built.
Third, the current Senate bill requires the agencies and the USASpending.gov portal to implement data standards by prescribed deadlines. Those implementation deadlines (see Senate HSGAC’s new section 4) still exist in OMB’s draft, but they relate to a different, and completely unrelated, set of actions. In OMB’s draft, the agencies are not required to do anything at all (see OMB’s new section 4(c)). Nor is USASpending.gov required to start providing spending information encoded using data standards.
In short, OMB’s revisions to the data standards section of the DATA Act seem designed to ensure that nobody will develop data standards for federal spending, nobody will use them, and nothing will change.
OMB’s Revisions Eliminate any Mandate for Consolidated Publication. The value of the DATA Act for public accountability lies in its requirement that all of the different sources of federal spending data–financial accounting, payments, budget actions, grants, contracts, subawards–should be published together, integrated with one another.
Data standards will connect these different sources to one another; consolidated publication will ensure they can all be searched as one. For example, information about a particular contractor can be found in several different sources which today are published separately: payment reports, contract reports, and subaward reports. The current DATA Act seeks to make it possible for citizens to find all the information relevant to a particular contractor (or to a particular program, or a particular grant, or a particular appropriations line item) at once. Thus, the current bill (see Senate HSGAC‘s new Section 3) instructs the Treasury Department to publish the whole corpus of federal spending on one website, USASpending.gov.
But under OMB’s revisions, the consolidated publication of spending information is gone. OMB’s draft requires OMB to publish one set of information on “a site determined by the Director” and another set of information on USASpending.gov. This bifurcation appears to be intended to allow OMB to comply with the DATA Act through existing reports–avoiding harder task of bringing the different sources of spending data together and integrating them.
OMB’s revision also reduces the frequency of data updates from monthly to quarterly, but this incremental change matters less than what’s being updated.
OMB’s revisions replace Treasury, throughout the bill, with OMB itself. But OMB’s actions show it is opposed to the bill’s central purpose of transforming federal spending into open data.
Earlier this month, after a consensus emerged between Democratic and Republican Senators on a financial offset provision that would allow the DATA Act to clear the Senate on unanimous consent, OMB instructed the Treasury Department not to provide the necessary cost documentation to the Senate sponsors. OMB has prepared these revisions only after receiving repeated requests from the Senate to stop blocking the bill entirely.
In other words, OMB’s Plan A has been to prevent the DATA Act’s passage. Plan B is to put itself in charge of implementation. With this history in mind, Congress can’t be confident that OMB would vigorously pursue data standardization and publication if given charge of these tasks.
OMB’s Revisions Remove Expenditure Transparency, Internal Use, and Quality Accountability from the Bill’s Purposes. The current bill includes a robust “Purposes” section that lays out Congress’ intent for the DATA Act to transform federal spending from disconnected documents into open data. But OMB’s revisions remove several key commitments from the “Purposes” section.
The Senate bill’s first purpose includes a commitment to publish Federal agencies’ internal expenditures as well as external grants and contracts; OMB’s revisions remove that commitment. The Senate bill’s second purpose affirms that data transparency is intended to deliver actionable information to federal policymakers, as well as to citizens; OMB’s revisions remove the term “policy makers.” The Senate bill’s fourth purpose declares Congress’ intent to “hold Federal agencies accountable for the completeness and accuracy of the data submitted”; OMB’s revisions eliminate accountability from the statement.
As with all legislation, the purpose statements of the DATA Act aren’t binding; they‘re merely intended to express Congress’ goals. Why would OMB want revise Congress’ own goals for the DATA Act? There’s only one possible reason: OMB doesn’t want the future record to reflect that Congress intended to publish internal government expenditures, set up a platform useful to policymakers as well as citizens, and hold federal agencies accountable for the quality of their data.
OMB’s Revisions are Inconsistent with Obama Administration Policy. President Obama’s Open Data Policy, which he signed last May, calls on the executive branch to collect and create its information as open data. “Open Data” is defined as information that is public, accessible, fully described, reusable, complete, timely, and managed post-release (page 5). The policy specifically encourages the use of common data elements and non-proprietary formats (section III). When President Obama issued the Open Data Policy, he simultaneously ordered OMB and interagency councils to “identify and initiate implementation of measures to support the integration of the Open Data Policy requirements into Federal acquisition and grant-making processes” (Open Data Policy executive order, section 3).
At the time, our Coalition hailed the Open Data Policy as a breakthrough. If its principles were fully implemented throughout federal spending, government information would indeed undergo the transformation we seek.
The DATA Act puts these principles in place throughout federal spending. Its mandates for common data elements and common formats, plus comprehensive publication, are intended to transform the acquisition and grant domains specifically cited by the President, from disconnected documents into open data. Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office, has testified that legislation is necessary to bring about this transformation–“without legislation … it won’t happen.”
OMB’s proposed revisions to the DATA Act contradict President Obama’s policy statements; they ensure that the legislation will not have its intended effect.
Coming Next: Senate Response, White House Clarification? Our Coalition will watch closely as the DATA Act’s Senate sponsors decide how to respond to OMB’s proposed revisions. But until OMB changes its position, the Obama Administration is on record as opposing data transparency in federal spending–a stance contrary to the bipartisan consensus in Congress and even the President’s own policies.